This: welcome home
With his writing, Ernest Hemingway wanted to create the sense that the lives of his characters continued on before and after the narratives he created; to achieve a sense of looking at a snapshot in the lives of real people rather than providing characters whose actions conformed to demands of plot or theme. With This, currently on at the Vancouver Playhouse, Melissa James Gibson, evokes a similar created reality: it is as if we are dropped into the world of her characters – in this case, educated, mid-lifers, living in New York – and then suddenly pulled out as their messy, inter-connected lives carry on without us. Not all the narratives are wrapped up neatly, not every character has a clearly articulated journey and a nifty exit line – instead for some the action simply stops (which is just fine by me).
The question becomes why Gibson chose these particular points of entrance and departure for her characters and to deduce from the evidence provided whose narrative is at the core. Again like Hemingway, Gibson is elusive. I’ve known people to dismiss The Sun Also Rises as some pointless – albeit well written – story about bullfighting. Bullfighting is not the point of Hemingway’s book, and likewise Gibson’s thematic interests are not necessarily where they appear to be at first glance. What seems to be a play about infidelity and the impact of children on older parents turns into an exploration of grief and identity.
Intriguingly, Gibson is pulling off these sly tricks while operating in an all too familiar milieu – the urban, domestic drama – and working with language that is accessible and with an ear for dialogue that is laugh out loud funny. Indeed, it is quite possible to go to This, laugh your arse off and not give the show another thought. In this way, Gibson’s writing put me in mind of a contemporary Oscar Wilde, particularly during the dazzling opening sequence – which includes a hilarious word game that goes horrifically off the rails. Like Wilde, James never shies away from going for the laugh, even when those laughs seem to be awkwardly placed within a dramatic context. Talking to a few people after the show, this seemed to be a consistent question raised. I’m not sure how I feel about it all. In my own writing, I will almost always go for the laugh no matter what the situation – and I have come under intense scrutiny because of it. I understand why directors might balk at these moments, they are tricky for the actors and if they misfire they can take the audience out of the work and also undermine the “seriousness” of the piece.
So, this is a work that presents subtle challenges. The production itself is beautifully and honestly executed. Director Amiel Gladstone keeps the pacing fresh and focused on performances and text. Unfortunately Alison Green’s cumbersome and slightly awkward set does get in the way but the cast for their part deftly avoid any of the traps Gibson may have set for them. I know some of you will want to hear about Megan Follows and I have a confession to make: I’ve never seen Anne of Green Gables. So a whole dimension was missing from my experience of the evening, which I guess is a Canadian equivalent of seeing Chandler from Friends doing Mamet on Broadway. The Playhouse has put a lot of focus on Follows in its publicity strategy – and this is understandable – although if you’re expecting a one woman show with four actors baring witness, you’d be in for a surprise, this is truly an ensemble piece. While the character that Follows plays, Jane, is ultimately the emotional core of the work, her role in the narrative architecture is often blocked from view by the other characters. This is appropriate, this is how life is lived after all, but also because her character is grieving the loss of a husband and like grieving people they are at once highly visible (and turned into a sort of symbol by others, as Jane is here) and invisible, we don’t want to see too much of the grief, after all, it makes us uncomfortable.
Playing a character who is at once visible/invisible, coping/not coping, Follows gives a grounded and nuanced performance. Todd Thomson and Karen Holness are completely believable as a couple who are struggling with a new born who refuses to sleep longer than 15 minutes as well as confronting the mismatches in their relationship. Fabrice Gover gets lots of laughs in nailing the haughty Frenchman, Jean-Pierre. The sneering European is not particularly original in American popular culture. Neither is the gay BFF who is always ready with an irreverent wisecrack and seems to be lacking in any sort of sex life (perhaps this is the level gay men can be accepted at into mainstream culture: we’ll have you around because you’re funny but don’t have any sex). I forgive Gibson this slip into stereotype simply because Alan is so damn funny and he does have other quirks that make him unique. But it is Dmitry Chepovetsky who really brings the character to life with an outstanding performance and great comedic timing.
Although I’m impressed by Gibson’s writing, there are moments where the script flags and the juggling act between heightened, elliptical language and uber-naturalism falter. I could also have done without the song interludes – the play includes original music composed by Peter Eldridge – although it was nice to hear Holness singing. For my money, there is one place where the piece seriously falters and intriguingly highlights what it is that Gibson does so well. In the penultimate scene, Jane has a meltdown in front of her friends that involves the ashes of her dead husband. The scene feels somehow unearned or maybe too extreme. This is tricky because we can all think of situations where someone (maybe even ourselves) has had a public meltdown that seems to come out of the blue. Jane has confessed to the others that the perfect relationship she shared with her husband might not have been all that perfect and, in fact, that her grief had been complicated – perhaps even compromised – by the fact that they were going through a bad patch. This is quite a challenging notion about how we manage our own internal narrative and how we respond to the concepts that others – in this case, the grieving widow from the ideal marriage – place on us. Instead of grieving – as we understand grief – Jane has simply been absent. I guess I found the sequence with the ashes to be out of keeping with not just the world Gibson has created but also with how she’s been marshalling her material. She’d kept her nerve for so long, not letting anything slip, not giving into easy cathartic moments that it was as if her courage faltered at this crucial moment and we find ourselves stumbling into more familiar territory.
As has been reported widely, Gibson was raised in Vancouver and this production is a homecoming of sorts for her. For the past decade, she has been building an impressive resume in New York – where she now lives – and this represents the peak of her career so far. The Playhouse production is a great opportunity to welcome Gibson home.